Cornell and Penn games show two sides of football’s season

Against Cornell Oct. 26, Princeton football used a handful of explosive plays to pick up its third win of the season. But the Tigers’ offensive fireworks fizzled eight days later at Penn in a 7–0 loss to the Quakers.

Princeton coach Roger Hughes, who wryly observed that the Penn game may have “set offensive football back about 50 years,” listed the reasons for his team’s stagnation: poor execution, ineffective blocking, impatience in the passing game, sloppy special teams, and a few missed tackles in an otherwise strong defensive performance.

The Tigers (3–5, 2–3 Ivy League) were shut out for the first time in Hughes’ eight-year tenure. Their best scoring chance came early in the second quarter, when quarterback Greg Mroz ’08 connected with Rob Toresco ’08 on a 66-yard pass play. Toresco was tackled from behind at Penn’s 4-yard line. After two Princeton rushes were stopped at the line of scrimmage, Mroz returned to the air, but his pass was tipped by a defender and intercepted by Penn’s Britton Ertman.

Injuries to Mroz, who hurt his shoulder tackling Ertman, and wide receivers Brendan Circle ’08 (bruised hip) and Will Thanheiser ’09 (concussion) contributed to Princeton’s struggles on offense. But the Tigers’ defense kept the game close. While Penn’s All-Ivy running back Joe Sandberg looked impressive, scoring the game’s only touchdown and accounting for 212 yards on offense (158 rushing, 54 receiving), the rest of the Quakers combined for just 52 yards. “I think the defense played the best they’ve played all year,” Toresco said. “They gave us plenty of opportunities.”

Against Cornell, Princeton’s offense had taken advantage of its opportunities, reaching the end zone five times. Backup tailback Jordan Culbreath ’10 was the game’s star, breaking through tacklers to score on touchdown runs of 49 and 58 yards, and Circle, the holder on placekicks, ran 22 yards for a touchdown on a fake field-goal play late in the first half.

The most important play, though, was one that did not count. With nine seconds remaining in the game, the Big Red lined up for a 47-yard field goal that would have tied the score. Hughes planned to use a time-out to put added pressure on the kicker, but when he turned to make the call, the referee had moved down the sideline. “I had to actually run and scream at the top of my lungs,” Hughes said. “I just got the time-out [called] in time.” As the whistle blew, Cornell snapped the ball and kicker Peter Zell drove it through the uprights. Moments later, on the kick that counted, Zell booted the ball wide right.

Princeton’s good fortune did not carry over to the Penn game. Culbreath was ineffective running the ball (20 yards on eight carries), and the Princeton passing game never found its rhythm. Hughes admitted he was frustrated by his team’s uneven performances this season. “We try to pride ourselves on the consistency with which we play, the intensity and the passion with which we play the game, every week, regardless of the situation,” he said. “For whatever reason, we’re not [living up to that]. Clearly, we need to find that answer.”